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Tech/3 Walter Sikonowiz

Artillery Mechanic, Light

Artillery Section, 736th Ordnance (Light Maintenance) Company, 36th Infantry Division

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This large grouping belonged to Walter Sikonowiz of Auburn, New York. The write-up below was only possible thanks to the painstaking daily diary he kept throughout the entire war, giving an incredible look at the operations of the 736th Ordnance Company and his role within it. Throughout the article I have sought to reference specific pieces within the group when they are mentioned.

 

     Walter Sikonowiz was born the son of two Polish immigrants in Auburn, New York in 1921. His parents, who had come to Canada and then the United States only a decade or so before his birth, were both employed at a large local ropemaking plant, the Columbian Rope Company, raising Sikonowiz and his younger brother on a laborer’s salary throughout their childhood years. After graduating from high school he joined his parents at the factory but had only barely begun work when the United States was launched into war. Less than a year after hostilities began Sikonowiz received his draft notice calling him into military service. Going through basic and advanced ordnance training at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, he was assigned to his war-long combat unit, the 36th Infantry Division, as a light artillery mechanic within two months of joining.

     Sikonowiz joined the 36th on December 29, 1942, as a filler for the former national guard division now mobilizing into a full-force combat unit. With some technical skill and training in ordnance, he was assigned to the 736th Ordnance (Light Maintenance) Company, an organic detachment of the 36th Division. The role of the Ordnance Company generally was to oversee the repair, function, and replacement of all ordnance and weaponry used by the division, an essential but oft-forgotten job critical for a division’s continued combat capability. Sikonowiz was attached to the artillery and large guns section, meaning he specialized and focused on the repair of 60 and 81mm mortars, 57mm anti-tank guns, howitzers of all sizes and shapes, and self-propelled guns. Occasionally he fooled around with the small arms section, but his primary role was to upkeep the many large-caliber support weapons used by the 36th Division. 

 

     After several years of training and many field maneuvers, Sikonowiz boarded the Thomas H. Berry with the rest of the ordnance company and followed the 36th Division to Africa, arriving in Oran on April 13, 1943. His service in Africa was fairly menial as the men mostly performed guard duty and random tasks as they awaited the 36th’s selection for frontline service. Sikonowiz took full advantage of this period and traveled around seeing the sights, writing letters to family and friends, and watching plenty of movies. On June 16 Sikonowiz purchased some locally-made cigarette cases and a pocketbook, his first souvenirs of the war, which he promptly shipped back home and which still remain with the grouping today. A month later he was able to perform one of his first role-specific jobs, hosting a demonstration and seminar on the use of the 105mm howitzer and German 88mm gun for men of the 143rd Infantry Regiment. Thankfully, several captured German guns had been left in the area, and with the knowledge given by Sikonowiz, the men hoped to understand their enemy a little better. Throughout this period, and what would remain a constant for the rest of the war, were the care packages and letters sent from home. Sikonowiz was an avid writer and his family proved the same, keeping correspondence throughout the entire conflict. In Africa these care packages allowed him to get started on another side hobby of his, photography, by sending him film rolls which he quickly put to use then and for the rest of the war. On August 6 he was officially awarded the European-African Campaign Medal, although he had yet to see combat, and for the last few weeks in August, spent his time waterproofing and performing final checks on the division’s weapons for an upcoming but secret movement. Come September 5 the company was loaded aboard the Orontus, sailing away from the African coast towards a mission unknown.

     Writing feverish letters home while waiting for a rumored amphibious assault, on September 9, 1943, Sikonowiz and the 36th Division received their baptism of fire by landing near Paestum on Red Beach during the widespread invasion of Salerno, the first Allied landing on mainland Europe and the start of the war in Italy. Below is his account of that day:

Landed at 3 P.M. on the invasion day. Waded through water knee-high from the LCS then walked on the beach and hopped onto a half-track with Lt. Murphy [and others, illegible] looking for the D’ W.P. area. A bullet whizzed low overhead and then we ducked low in the half-track. Finally, we reached the D’W.P. area and met Wortham and Beyliss. After waterproofing we took off alongside the old ruins along the side of the road running east away from the beach and ducked into the side of the road into a ditch. Sniping was going on, artillery firing over our heads to the enemy lines and from the enemy lines. It was a miserable sight that day. Later a barrage of anti-aircraft guns got the enemy planes along the beach of Salerno.

 

The company history states that they moved in 300 yards towards Paestum before having to dig in, setting up a command post in an Apple Orchard to start operations as far as possible away from the fighting while gathering supplies and equipment as it arrived. Luftwaffe bombing was constant but the company continued to move, from a tobacco barn near division headquarters onto Altavilla, where the entire division regrouped. Sikonowiz did not write anything for the next fifteen days as he and the division faced severe German counterattacks attempting to drive them back into the sea. Although he was meant for a logistics and support role, no doubt these days were spent on the frontline. He only returned to his diary to relate his ability to finally write letters home but otherwise was put into a busy routine performing his war-long tasks of fixing and maintaining the guns of the division. The fighting was slow-going up through the coast and the first major movement he records is to Pozzula, above Naples, on October 13. A few weeks later he wrote of receiving his Good Conduct Ribbon and a few days after that, getting his first leave, to Naples, where he and several friends enjoyed the food, drink, and sights of the city. While the division moved further inland the company found itself having to camouflage its vehicles for safety, putting up men for nightly guard duty, and moving through Mazanello northward as the rain and colder weather took over the area of operations. Now solidly into the Italian campaign, Sikonowiz once again began to pick up his camera, writing of an outing on November 26 into the hills outside of Nazanello where they found many bomb craters and even a German hand grenade which they “did not pick up.” 

     The day-to-day consisted of breakfast, working on whatever guns needed fixing, most often mortars, howitzers, or anti-tank guns, and occasional chores for the company with free time in the evening. Sikonowiz took an interest in his work, however, and rather than be bogged by the routine, proved rather creative. On November 30 he first designed and built a modified sliding bracket for an 81mm mortar, one of the common pieces used by the frontline infantry units. These brackets, the essential piece which moves and rotates the mortar as it is adjusted by the user, were known to wear quickly and lose their accuracy. Sikonowiz began developing a more robust version which was much less apt to damage, a design he worked on perfecting throughout the war, albeit starting during this period of the Italian campaign. 

 

     With the division engaged in heavy mountain fighting, late November and December found Sikonowiz working on a large number of 75mm pack howitzers, specialized lightweight guns intended for use in harsh terrain. Rain plagued the gunsmiths but nevertheless, the men worked tirelessly, even taking field trips to the frontline to check on their work. Sikonowiz went on his first of these trips in early December when he spent a few days inspecting guns of the 131st Field Artillery Battalion. The repairs done by the company were the only way many of the guns used by the division were able to stay in the field. A few examples of projects he worked on just in these few months alone were replacing the tube and recoil of a 105mm howitzer, changing out damaged gun carriages, fixing springs on balance wheels, repairing mortar legs, fixing recoil piston rods, crafting parts for guns from scratch, adjusting bore-sighting, and even replacing the howitzers for the M7 Priest self-propelled guns of the 141st Infantry’s Cannon Company. It was a busy campaign as artillery played a critical role in supporting the mountain operations of the division. Even with the stressful and constant work, the ordnance men found ways to keep themselves busy. Sikonowiz used a local cobbler to add custom buckles to his combat boots, got a new watch, and even got to meet Jack Rice, a famous war correspondent for the Associated Press, who took photos of him and some others working on 57mm anti-tank guns. One night a comrade dressed up as a woman, impersonating and legitimately convincing some of the home-sick troops that he was a true local. All this is to say, “lots of the boys got fooled” but it turned out to be “a great joke among the fellows.”

 

     On December 21 he once again found himself close to the action when he drove a ¾ ton truck to the 141st Infantry Regiment’s Service Company just past Venafro to check on the M7 Priests, a trip which included some light sniping towards the mechanics as they traveled along. Christmas, his first away from the United States, was spent drinking with his friends, listening to the radio, and decorating their occupied house with a Christmas tree and colored strips of paper. In his diary, he warmly wrote that “it almost seems like home.” On Christmas morning the company did receive a set of gifts, although it was a massive order of fresh rifles for the small arms section which Sikonowiz and his boys had to help de-cosmoline so that they could be sent to the infantry. The bright spot of the holiday was a Red Cross girl (a real one this time) who brought donuts to the men while they worked. She was a welcome sight, as well as the large turkey Christmas lunch they ate, and made the holiday seem a little more normal than it might otherwise have in the cold Italian hills. 

     The week after Christmas was spent driving around to various units of the division, including the 155th Field Artillery, with its massive 155mm guns, the 143rd Infantry Regiment, and the 141st Infantry Regiment where they inspected and performed quick repairs on howitzers, mortars, 57mm anti-tank guns, and even some T-30s (howitzer-mounted half-tracks used by the 143rd Infantry’s cannon company). January 9 found the ordnance company receiving its own weapons, to keep this time, a fresh batch of M1 Carbines which were used by the men throughout the rest of the war. 

 

     The 36th was involved in heavy combat near Monte Cassino throughout January, meaning the men had a steady stream of work. From the 26-28, however, the going was especially tough as the division fought its bloodiest battle at the Rapido River. While the infantrymen were taking massive casualties in a flawed and horrible attack forced by General Mark Clark, Sikonowiz traveled back and forth between the 132nd and 155th Field Artillery to check on the howitzers which had been firing around the clock to support the doomed assault. He described these inspections as “plenty hot” with numerous shells falling all around them. It was one of the more dangerous periods of Italy faced by Sikonowiz who usually found himself at the end of someone else’s gun only when it was dismounted and on his work bench. Interestingly, he notes that during this battle the 155th had even put to use a series of 75mm pack howitzers, half the size of their usual guns, which certainly were needed with the constant fire missions keeping them busy. 

     On February 4 Sikonowiz was officially awarded his first campaign star for his European Theater ribbon, representing the Napples-Foggia campaign and the many months of critical work he had performed to keep the division in fighting shape. Throughout February the company spent its days working in Mignano and San Angelo attempting to keep up with the infantry. The work was much the same as before the Rapido, repairing, inspecting, and maintaining the many types of field pieces that had seen so much action in such little time. Occasional German shelling and even an air raid plagued the mechanics. Nevertheless, the Allies always seemed to reciprocate the explosives with even greater numbers. Sikonowiz noted March 15, 1944, as one of the largest returns when “formation after formation” of heavy and medium American bombers flew overhead to drop thousands of tons of bombs in the Cassino sector. Little did he realize, but this was one of the largest raids in Italy and the largest that had happened thus far into the war. For all of the near-combat experiences of February and March, the end of the period was spent enjoying the division band playing at the Royal Italian Opera House, occasionally working on half-tracks and mortars, and briefly visiting Pompeii where he was able to view the volcano erupting. 

 

     April and May brought warmer weather as the ordnance company took part in a series of baseball games while turning in their winter overcoats. The division was in a reserve position near Avellino, giving Sikonowiz time to sew new corporal stripes and a T-Patch on his shirt while getting professional pictures taken in Salerno. The division held several inspections and formations, including one which saw division commander General Walker decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross. May 13 was an especially fun day as the division was entertained by none other than Marlene Dietrich, the former starlet of Germany whom Sikonowiz managed to get several pictures of with his own camera. Unfortunately, this period of rest was not to last, and on May 21 the division loaded up on LSTs for another change of scenery.

     At 11:30 the next day the ordnance company unloaded at Anzio, the site of the massive stalled Allied drive towards Rome. German shells were everywhere as Sikonowiz dug a deep hole to sleep in for his first few days attempting to adapt to the new, more dangerous, conditions. By May 27 the company was already on the move, moving past Highway 7 towards Cisterno where the Luftwaffe made a great show of force strafing and attacking American positions. On the 29th an American plane, riddled with holes, crashed right beside them, with a German bomber to follow only a few hours later. It was a hot and hectic campaign. The first days of June had the company follow right behind the driving infantry, through Velletri and Marino, sleeping in dugouts on the slides of hills with little time to inspect any of the frontline units before the news came on June 4 that Rome, the jewel of Italy and first Axis capital, had fallen. Sikonowiz and his men walked through the city the next day, pistols at the ready, where they were greeted by numerous overjoyed Italians who showered them with thanks, kisses, and wine. It was while in Rome that they heard about the invasion of Normandy, overshadowing their achievement, but even so giving more hope that the war was turning in their favor. 

     In the weeks following the capture of Rome, the 36th drove onward along the coast, pushing German forces far from the capital and towards the mountain ranges of the north. Sikonowiz and the 736th spent it trucking with them and inspecting much of the German equipment left behind, including a massive 270mm rail gun which had been left in Civitavecchia and several Italian tanks repurposed by the Germans for their own use. The division received its own new tanks, M8 Stuarts fitted with 75mm howitzers, which he and his section worked to fix up and refine before sending to the 143rd Infantry Regiment’s Cannon Company for field use. The work was routine with occasional social outings to nearby towns and villages for drinks, movies, and more–a more friendly existence than those of their infantry counterparts. Even so, the summer went by quickly and after several weeks of inspections and tests in July, as the division sat in reserve, the time came to once again load aboard a transport, this time the William Floyd, to leave Italy for good and say hello to France.

     Spending nearly a week sitting in a raft on the ship’s main deck that he managed to commandeer for his own personal space, Sikonowiz played checkers, met with friends, learned French phrases using his issued booklet, and listened to the occasional accordion music played by another musically-inclined GI while waiting for the signal that they were to drop for their second amphibious assault, this time along the beaches of the southern French coast. On August 15, 1944, the 36th began its landing operations near St. Raphael to much less resistance than it had encountered at Paestum. Sikonowiz, assigned to a truck, didn’t hit the beach until the next day when it had to be pulled off by a Sherman bulldozer after it wouldn’t start. Over the next few days, as the company and division unloaded its equipment, Sikonowiz and his men surveyed the area, taking silk parachutes left by paratroopers as souvenirs, photographing the crashed airborne gliders, and picking up abandoned German anti-aircraft guns which had been left behind in their retreat. Over the next month, Sikonowiz detailed the speedy and lengthy drive undertaken by the division as it pushed German forces out of Southern France, moving hundreds of miles in only a few days. At times the advance came at a cost, as he wrote about no less than three occasions where speeding deuce-and-a-half’s crashed along the roadside. Even with the rapid movement, his diary is full of instances of fraternization with locals, flirting with the girls, receiving meals and drinks, and more as he helped to liberate a region of France occupied for over five years.

     September continued the drive deeper into Central France as Sikonowiz noted more and more signs that it may soon come to a stop. At first finding a huge 120mm Russian mortar abandoned by a German artillery unit, a few days later the unit came across one of the Germans himself as he bumped into their sentry, refused to surrender, and was promptly shot trying to run away. Sikonowiz wrote that everyone kept their carbines close afterward. On the 21st the company moved into Plombieres Les Baines where he witnessed men of the French Forces of the Interior shaving the heads of women who had “fooled around” with German soldiers during the occupation. He counted a total of sixty-four alone in that city. In the days following the company settled into a longer-term position a few miles north, near Remiremont, where they would set up shop to support the division’s grinding battle of the Vosges.

     Throughout October the combat units of the 36th were locked into stiff combat with German forces in the Vosges mountains, fighting hill to hill and hamlet to hamlet attempting to push the embittered defenders out of the region. Sikonowiz and the 736th underwent many of the same operations to continuously ensure the infantry and artillery had the weaponry needed to pound German positions and hold off any counterattacks. In the rear echelon, his time was much nicer, however, as he recalled enjoying tavern beers, local markets, movies, and more while the rest of the division was held at the front. For the first time, however, the men of the ordnance company learned they were not all that safe as the heavy casualties taken led the division to pull men at random to put into line infantry units. It was a hazardous time to be sure, and some of his trips to the frontline visiting the field artillery battalions reminded him that only a few miles away from his workshop, the fruits of his labor were going head-to-head with a massive German force. 

     As the French cold swept through the mountains in early November, Sikonowiz and the company were issued the new m43 field jackets, winter over-shoes, wool sweaters, and other special gear meant to protect them in the vicious winter weather. Most entries for the month discuss the many mortars, howitzers, and anti-tank guns he repaired, again supporting the division’s more successful, but still slow, movement through the Vosges. In the first days of December, the division broke out onto the Alsatian plain, meaning the ordnance company dashed past the town of St. Marie to St. Croix where they continued operations for the new push towards the German border. It was during this time that Sikonowiz picked up a new hobby, painting souvenir helmets captured from Germans for his “boys.” It appears as though he was selected often for the task and did so on several occasions. 

     With the 36th driving onward the 736th Ordnance moved to Strasbourg on December 22, Wallendorf on January 8, Ottwiller on the 13, and Romanswiller on the 21. It was a series of quick dashes to keep up with the division all the while repairing and maintaining guns in between. February was full of similar operations, although Sikonowiz did take on a new personal project–modifying the existing grenade launchers to launch farther, more accurately, and more reliably. It was a pet project of his, again showing his inventive nature, which he spent several weeks working on alongside his regular duties maintaining the artillery pieces. 

     The last three months of the war felt busy but were much less strenuous than the periods prior. In early March Sikonowiz severely injured his back while lifting a 155mm howitzer tube onto a new carriage, this caused him to spend nearly two weeks in a Nancy hospital before returning to the company later in the month as they dashed forward every few days to keep up with the drive into Germany. On March 26 he and some buddies crossed the Maginot line, taking photographs with the massive “dragon’s teeth” which had ended up doing very little to halt the American advance. Now in Germany proper, April kept him busy as part of the designated inspection team, traveling around every single company, battalion, and regiment of the 36th Infantry Division to check on all artillery pieces and evaluate their condition. The division was in a fairly static state at this point, mostly serving in a policing role, thus the ordnance men had plenty of time to do a holistic evaluation of the weaponry after months of heavy use. With a brief vacation to Brussels towards the end of the month, Sikonowiz ended up having to drive back an extra few hundred miles to Augsburg in order to return to his company. Now in the war’s final days, he diverted from his routine to transporting prisoners, who were thrown bread by passing civilians, passing fields of abandoned Luftwaffe airplanes, and photographing the snow-capped Alps as they moved towards Bad Tolz. On May 6 Sikonowiz wrote that the war was “practically over” at this point, confirming his suspicions the next day after a radio broadcast announced the final surrender of all German troops. After a year-and-a-half of combat, the war was finally at an end.

     While the fighting was done, occupation kept the ordnance company busy accounting for surrendered German equipment, refitting rifles, and rechecking artillery pieces. Even so, there was plenty of time for fun, such as driving a captured convertible around the mountains, drinking with Russian troops, and shipping home some souvenirs. June was filled with more of the same, including some photoshoots with abandoned German planes, but on the 14th he was moved to Ulm for a new mission. Here Sikonowiz was assigned to oversee gangs of German prisoner laborers sent to clear the streets of the city of the massive rubble gathered from the Allied bombing campaign. The city was in shambles and he notated many long days of work done by his former enemies to try and rebuild their homes.  

     In July the company moved to Goppingen where they oversaw a range of occupation-related duties. Sikonowiz spent his time taking photos, dressing up his Ike jacket, and, on July 26th, receiving the Bronze Star Medal for his creative redesign of the mortar sliding bracket which refitted the entire division’s guns. The citation reads:

 

Walter Sikonowiz had made a modification on a 60 and 81 M.M. Mortar sliding bracket. This modification has made the sliding bracket last twice as long as the original manufactured type. Under most hazardous combat conditions, continual wear contacted this sliding bracket. Due to this reliable modification, this continual wear had been eliminated. A securer grip is made on the sliding sleeve by this modified bracket, thus also ensuring complete accuracy under hazardous combat conditions. This modification has also saved twice as much work in Ordnance repair. For this meritorious achievement, a Bronze Star has been presented

 

     August added more notable entries into his diaries, including two regarding his reactions to the atomic bombings of Japan, and a second Bronze Star awarded for meritorious service throughout the war. At the end of the month, however, a sad moment rang as Sikonowiz and some of his friends were forced to leave their beloved T-Patchers, transferring to the 763rd Ordnance Company of the 63rd Infantry Division to prepare for the final trip home. They did so, finally leaving Camp Pall Mall onboard the Bienville on September 20, arriving at Camp Miles Standish on the 30th. Less than a week later, on October 6, 1945, Walter Sikonowiz was mustered out of the U.S. Army, ending a three-year career that had taken across three continents, five countries, and countless days keeping a division’s combat troops ready for the fight.

     Returning home to New York, Sikonowiz settled in Auburn, marrying in 1948 before beginning a thirty-year career with the Gleason-Avery gear and motor company where he was able to put his technical skills learned in the Army to use as a machinist and foreman. Throughout his life and retirement he continued two of his favorite pastimes, gardening and photography, the latter of which is ever present through his Army artifacts which so brilliantly depict his small part in history’s greatest struggle. He passed away in 2008, surrounded by his two sons and family, leaving behind an incredible story of service and a hidden archive telling the story of one of the most renowned European infantry units’ forgotten ordnance company.

Sikonowiz's First Diary

Sikonowiz's Second Diary

Sikonowiz's Third Diary

A German Photo Album Captured by Sikonowiz which depicts the Early Formation of the Bayerische Polizei, a Bavarian paramilitary force from 1923-1934

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